Archive for Peterson Reference Guide to Sparrows


Two White-throated Sparrows

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White-throated sparrow

White-throated sparrow

Both photographed here in northern New Jersey on the same late October day.


The calendar and the weather agree: It’s still late summer in northern New Jersey. A month from now, things will be different, but for the moment, only the most foolishly impatient prodder of the seasons is thinking of winter birds.

Except, of course, on this date. It’s September 6. And every year on this day, we pause — don’t we? — to remember the only Oregon junco named for a New Jersey birder.

Dwight 1918 thurberi junco

Eugene Carleton Thurber died in California on September 6, 1896, at the shockingly tender age of 31. Born in Poughkeepsie in 1865, Thurber moved to Morristown in 1881; a “promising young ornithologist, a careful collector, and a good observer,” he published his magnum (and perhaps solum) opus in November 1887, the List of Birds of Morris County, notable especially for its early records of the Lawrence’s and Brewster’s warblers.

Fragile health sent Thurber to California in 1889, where he

lived an out-of-door life in the field, collecting birds and mammals, as his health would permit, and preserving to the end his love for his favorite study.

On May 24, 1890, Thurber collected two juncos on Mount Wilson in the San Gabriel Mountains. That summer, he showed the skins to Alfred Webster Anthony, another New York native exploring the Golden State; Anthony was “considerably surprised” to learn of juncos’

nesting in abundance within twenty-five miles of Los Angeles,

and as none of the other local collections seemed to include any similar specimens, he organized an expedition in late August to “obtain, if possible, a series of birds.” On August 27 and 28, Anthony found juncos “very abundant” between 5200 and 5800 feet elevation. He shot what seems to have been a total of eight adults, two juveniles, and one bird of unknown age and sex; all of those new adult specimens, however, were — as one might have predicted, without climbing the mountain in the first place — “in ragged moulting plumage,” inadequate for diagnosis.

So Anthony, apparently forgetting about Google Images, sent his little series, which by now included both of Thurber’s skins, to Washington, whence Robert Ridgway replied with some “rather unexpected” information: Anthony’s — Thurber’s — California juncos represented a “strongly marked” but still unnamed subspecies.

Screenshot 2014-09-04 16.31.38

A deficiency, naturally enough, that Anthony promptly made up in the October 31, 1890, issue of Zoe:

I take pleasure in naming this handsome Junco for the discoverer, Mr. E.C. Thurber of Alhambra, Cal.

A few months later, having run through the juncos in a collection of birds purchased from Thurber in 1889, Frank Chapman was mildly skeptical: he pointed out that Anthony had failed to demonstrate that his new thurberi could be distinguished from the very widespread shufeldti.

The AOU, however, recognized the new race in 1892, and continued to list it as valid in the last Check-list to tally subspecies. BNA and Pyle, too, list thurberi among the Oregon junco subspecies. I’m glad we have a name for this population, whose recent colonization of the nearby California lowlands has provided some surprising insights into the rapidity of junco evolution.    

Thurber’s early death kept him from leaving much of a biographical trail: We know a great deal more about the junco than the man. All the more reason to remember him once a year, I think, even if our juncos are still a month away.


Dusky Seaside Sparrow, Oologist 31 -1914

A hundred years ago, there was still a tidy little list of North American birds whose nest and eggs had never been seen by white scientists. Among them: the dusky seaside sparrow.

The collectors of those days took their failure personal, and their inability to discover the home of

a bird whose range covered only a few square miles, and one that had been known to science for forty-one years, and whose nest had never been found, was a “slam” on the ability of us true Oologists.

In the early summer of 1914, Oscar Baynard and Henry Simpson set out to put things right. For a full week in May, Baynard and his “old side kick”

cruised the entire length of Merritts Island, visiting every place where there had ever been any records of the Dusky Seaside Sparrow…. on the morning of May 21st … I saw a Black Sparrow…. I killed the bird and upon dissecting same found it to be a male evidently in full breeding.

This sure made us feel good.

Encouraged, the collectors “plunged into the marsh” and quickly discovered “at least” twenty dusky seaside sparrows in the dense salicornia carpet. Four hours later, they had found no nest. Simpson suggested over dinner that the sparrows

did not lay eggs at all but had young like an animal.

And so after their meal, they took to the time-honored method of dragging the marsh with a weighted rope. It took no time at all before a bird flushed as if from a nest, which the searchers found and promptly collected, with its three “heavily incubated” eggs.

To say that we were elated is expressing it mildly and we did a regular Indian Tango or some other kind of dance…. We vowed we would find more nests or never leave the spot.

Baynard and Simpson lived up to their vow only too well in the days that followed, taking fledglings, nestlings, and two more sets of eggs. The third clutch they collected was so “heavily incubated” that one egg began to hatch on the way back to the boat; Baynard

was unable to save but one egg of this set.

“Save,” indeed.

Dusky seaside sparrow nest, Baynard 1914

Two of the nests and egg sets, along with the skins of the parent birds, were sold to John Eliot Thayer, of gull fame. Thayer in turn donated the first nest and clutch, collected on May 21, 1914, to Harvard’s museum, where they still reside.

Does it matter that, by my count, Baynard and Simpson killed at least 17 sparrows and sparrows in spe on those few May days a century ago?

I don’t know how to answer that question, or how to argue that the dusky seaside sparrow would have remained doomed regardless of the efforts of the collectors. But wouldn’t it be fine today to have seventeen dusky seaside sparrows and their hundred years of descendants buzzing away in the marshes of the Florida coast?



Bright Eyes

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Yellow-eyed Junco

Set your google search to Spanish, and you’ll probably come up with something bland but straightforward for this bird, something like Junco de ojos amarillos.

That’s just fine, but it doesn’t have quite the spark of the old Echa-lumbre. Recorded by Francis Sumichrast in Veracruz in the 1860s, the name

comes from the belief that this species’ eyes are phosphorescent in the dark.

I wouldn’t put anything past a junco myself.


How Many Wing Bars?

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American Tree Sparrow

One of the few things I can still enjoy about winter in the snow zone is the chance to spend some time with one of my (fifty or sixty or so) favorite emberizids, the American Tree Sparrow.

There’s a game I like to play when I’m watching this or any other “familiar” bird: How, I ask myself, can this bird be identified without recourse to any of the old Petersonian “field marks”?

After all, once you’ve seen your first hundred or thousand or (probably, though I don’t have an exact count) ten thousand tree sparrows, you don’t really look at the rusty crown or the smudgy breast spot or the swollen, yellow-based mandible.

Those are all “micro” marks, often hard to pick out without the application of glass. And yet we know what we’re looking at even before we’ve switched off the car. So what are we actually seeing — and can we make our impressions explicit, in real live honest-to-goodness words?

American Tree Sparrow

Well, there’s the rather long, black tail with conspicuous white edging, for one thing. There’s the coarse back pattern of rufous and black tracks, so unlike the neater, finer markings of this species’ (current) congeners. And there’s that big reddish secondary panel that contrasts so strikingly with the most beautifully black and white tertials worn by any American sparrow.

But most of the time it’s that single bright white wing bar that catches my eye.

American Tree Sparrow

And every time it does, I smile. What I learned as a young birder was that

Two conspicuous white wing-bars are also characteristic,

in the words of what still ranks as one of the very best field guides ever.

Indeed, American Tree Sparrows do have very large, very conspicuous white tips to both the greater and the median secondary coverts.

Slater Museum -- click to visit this fantastic online resource.

Slater Museum — click to visit this fantastic online resource.

But just because a bird “has” two wing bars doesn’t mean it “has” two wing bars. More often, I think, than most sparrows, birds of this species tend — at least in the winter — to droop their scapulars and fluff their breast feathers, often covering the median coverts, and thus the “upper” wing bar, entirely, creating the effect of a single bold white slash across a rich chestnut field.

American Tree Sparrow

Even when the second, upper wing bar is visible, it tends to appear incomplete; in two hours of sparrowing the other day, I had sustained looks at a bird revealing both wing bars in their full glory exactly once.

None of this is exactly earthshaking, I suppose, and I’ll admit that I still take every opportunity I can to enjoy the classic, oft-repeated identification characters of this charming species. But my birding is invariably enriched when I stop to ask not “What is it?” but rather “How do we know?”

Maybe yours would be, too.

American Tree Sparrow


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